Earlier this week, I signed up for a cultural activity to taste raw oysters, one of the most famous culinary specialties of France. Whereas I’ve had cooked oysters (mostly with garlic and rice noodles) many times, the raw ones were a new experience. They look great in the photo, but to be honest, I wasn’t sure whether I was tasting lemon and sea water or the fresh oyster. I think I still prefer cooked ones.
As in France, there are cultural celebrities in Chinese history who were passionate about oysters. However, the Chinese enthusiasts usually talked about cooked oysters. Liu Xun 劉恂 (fl. ninth century), for example, noted that oysters can be roasted after marination or fried in a pan. Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037-1101) also recorded a recipe for cooking oysters in liquor, an idea similar to mussels in white wine.
In the realm of Chinese art and literature, the most well-known reference to oysters is perhaps the poem by Mei Yaochen 梅堯臣 (1002-1060) translated below. This long poem is not only the first known Chinese poem dedicated to oysters but also a comprehensive depiction of various images that reoccur in art and literature about oysters.
A petty official staying in a coastal town
Who heard about Jingkang oysters 
Has been hoping to feast on them.
Yet [the shells] are not thick enough to drill and roast.
Within the billows, so it is said,
Are rugged [shells] like the Six Turtles’ shells, 
There are also plebeians
Who install bamboo cages across the sea.
[They] pick and collect [oysters] therefrom,
Surfing despite all tempests.
Salinity growing as time goes by,
[Oysters] reproduce themselves by the waterside.
Charcoal burning fiercely in the kitchen,
[They] are simmered with vegetables and artemisia.
Ending up in the cooking pot,
[They] still try to escape, shells closed.
Peeping through an opening,
[I see] jade-like blubber shimmering within the dark dress.
People say, when eating a small fish,
The reward is hardly worth the effort.
With these stubborn things like iron or stone,
Awls and knives are needed to open [them].
Exerting all efforts for one cut [of flesh] -
The award is as meagre as ox hair.
Considering the difficulty of the conquest,
Eating them to repletion isn’t too greedy at all.
* From Zhang Ying 張英 ed. Yuanjian leihan 淵鑑類涵 (Yinying Wenyuange Siku quanshu 景印文淵閣四庫全書 edition, Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1986, vol. 244), 444.2b (See https://ctext.org/library.pl?if=en&file=49319&page=86)
 Red characters rhyme.
 Jingkang is located in modern Guangdong.
 In ancient Chinese pyromancy with oracle bones, some recommend drilling the hole for divination on the thicker part of a turtle’s shell. Here, the poet is probably playing with divination-related vocabulary to indicate the oysters were not fat enough until now (when he wrote the poem).
 Legend has it that the Six Turtles carry the mountains of immortals on their back in the ocean around the land.
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